Whether it’s for money or fame, going online can make you famous

This is the unedited, unabridged version of the story that appeared on page 3C of The Chicago Tribune’s Tempo section on December 26, 2001.

Setting your sites on celebrity
By Andy Dehnart

Brett Banfe has appeared on NBC’s “Today Show,” ABC’s “Good Morning, America” and “Oprah.” Requests for interviews with him are filtered through a publicist, who has booked his media appearances. People magazine wrote about him, as did USA TODAY, The Washington Post, and the New York Times. Motorola forged a “relationship” with him.Banfe’s received that attention because he didn’t speak a single word for 370 days. Last fall, he decided to not talk for an entire year, communicating instead only non-verbally – and with Motorola text pagers the company provided. A press release on the Web site he ran during his year-long project said the action “[gave] him a chance to observe society and learn about himself.”

And it also gave him a chance to get attention. From Howard Stern to Oprah Winfrey, people noticed, right up until the end, when he broke his silence with a quote from Shakespeare in front of a crowd of media people and others at Planet Hollywood in New York. Now, a year and hundreds of national and international media appearances later, he is recognized, sort of. People have definitely heard of him — mostly, he says, because of his appearance on “Oprah” — but they generally don’t just recognize him. But “definitely more than half” of random people he meets — including, for example, two mechanics who fixed his car — have heard of him.

The attention wasn’t all positive, though: Mike’s List, an e-mail newsletter, echoed the skepticism by calling Banfe’s actions a “shameless technology publicity stunt.”

But in an e-mail interview during his silent period, Banfe said that the “decision had nothing to do with fame, because originally, it was all about me. … I am not seeking fame first and foremost. But of course I’d be lying to say it wouldn’t be interesting and fun….” Now, speaking again, he says he thinks he’s “a little, kind of” famous, and thinks his experience will give him “some opportunities to do some cool things with my life.”

Judging by the attention he’s received, he certainly seems famous. Yet Banfe, who’s 19, isn’t a household name, like Tom Cruise or Bill Clinton.

What makes a person famous in this era of new-media outlets, from the Internet to reality TV, which give everyday people exposure they would never have had 10 or 15 years ago? And how does online-based fame differ from a traditional star system?

“What we’ve seen over the last 80 years is an expansion of people who can become well known,” says Irving J. Rein, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and the co-author of “High Visibility: The Making and Marketing of Professionals into Celebrities.” Rein says that’s because people like Banfe have “the distribution channels that didn’t exist before.”

Banfe’s publicist — who knows his family through a mutual friend — says that he’s “somewhat famous” because of the media attention he’s received. Karen L. Ammon represents Banfe for free, and similarly represents two other possibly fame-seeking college students, Chris and Luke (chrisandluke.com), who wanted a corporation to sponsor their college education. First USA accepted their offer.

“Somewhat famous” could also describe Derek Powazek, 28, a freelance Web designer and consultant in San Francisco. Among the well-known and respected Web sites he has created is Fray.com, which was nominated for multiple Webby awards – the Oscars of the Internet – this year for its innovatively presented collection of personal stories. Over its five-year life, about 12,000 people have posted their stories in response to the site’s features. He’s also written a book, “Design for Community,” that offers advice based upon his experience.

But is he famous? Consider this: Powazek was in a Chinese restaurant in Poland with his parents late last spring when a woman approached him and asked if he was indeed Derek Powazek. She’d read about his trip on his Web site and noticed him while passing by.

Despite that recognition, Powazek says that online fame – although it “definitely exists, because people treat me differently online” – doesn’t necessarily transfer to celebrity in person. “There are people online who treat me like a big deal and yet, when I stand in line at the DMV, nobody lets me cut ahead of them. People don’t scream my name when I walk down the street.”

But Powazek’s prominence as a trendsetter in the online community hasn’t been a completely positive experience. “Some people have decided that I am famous because they know me, because I have been honest and told true personal stories online,” he says. Because of negative attacks from some people who know him, Powazek says he’s had to limit his openness online. “I am no longer actually able to tell those personal stories and be completely honest because being famous carries with it expectations.”

Powazek and John Halycon Styn, another Web celebrity, both identified the same quotation from Scottish artist Momus that they say describes this new breed of fame perfectly: “In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people.”

It’s an apropos twist on Andy Warhol’s famous saying, because being famous in 2001 seems to mean that even if the whole world doesn’t recognize you, some people will treat you as if the whole world does recognize you. Rein says that “celebrity is what you make of it. … there [are different] levels of celebrity.”

That applies to Styn, who runs a series of Web sites. “I consider myself famous only in the sense that within certain circles, I am ‘known,’” he says.

So does Styn, 30, broadcast his life online at therealhouse.com; write a daily Web log and publish pictures of himself at cockybastard.com and styn.net; and share stories of his life at prehensile.com for the fame?

“I would love to have a larger audience. Is having a large audience the same as being famous? I think so,” Styn says. But with new fame, there’s no concrete number that makes one famous — it can be as large as the 30 million viewers that saw Brett Banfe on Oprah, or it can be more intimate, like the 200 who attended an in-person gathering of Fray.com readers last year.

Styn also publishes online for other reasons: to tell stories, to “[make] people laugh and think. … By pushing boundaries, I hope to allow others to push their own boundaries,” he says. “It’s easier to wear a pink shirt and still feel masculine when there is a guy next door (or online) wearing pink fur pants.”

Styn says that the Internet fundamentally changed the nature of fame. “Before the Internet, we had one huge mass media community. The famous people were on TV and in movies. They were on the covers of magazines. When you have millions of media channels [Web sites] profiling people, the concept of fame changes. There develops a tier system, almost.”

And now, because “people are beginning to identify with smaller, more intimate communities” – especially online – a new level of fame is created where “the celebrities are accessible,” he says.

Styn also hypothesizes that another product of the Web – Web cams, digital cameras that broadcast over the Internet – “are altering the concept of fame because you can become ‘famous’ in an evening if you put on a compelling show.”

Ana Voog was one of the first people to become famous as a result of broadcasting her life online. Her Web cam, anacam.com, has been running since late August, 1997, and judging by the media attention and her fan base, she’s achieved the kind of fame Styn talks about. Besides having a worldwide audience, Voog has been written about in Playboy, Newsweek, and other publications. Even the Museum of Modern Art considers her famous; her work was included in an exhibition called “Fame After Photography.”

Yet Voog, 35, doesn’t see herself as entirely famous. “I think it’s safe to say I am somewhat famous. Cult status, perhaps.” Voog defines fame by quantity: “Fame is when a ton of people know about you. The more people that know who you are, the more famous you are.”

But even though her numbers are high – she has a self-identified core audience of 10,000 people and millions of others visit her site – that doesn’t affect her. “It’s just a side effect of what I do; it’s not what motivates me at all, but because it is such an interesting side effect, I do definitely pay attention to it,” Voog says. “I don’t do this to be famous, I do it to communicate to as many people as possible…and to do that, fame is obviously a side effect.”

Another side effect is money. Rein says that “You’ve got to be able to translate [fame] to power, pay, or privilege” to make it useful. “Without that, it can be stimulating, but it’s not particularly useful, it’s not pragmatic. [A lot of] celebrity now in the last 50, 60, or 70 years has really been based on whether or not it makes money.” And, more significantly, he says that “celebrity has become big because ultimately people can make money off it.”

Voog is able to work on her art and run Anacam full time; some pay for subscriptions to her site and others buy her work. Still, she says that the money isn’t directly due to her celebrity: “I do not make my money from fame. I make money because I am a very good artist and people like what they see and choose to purchase what I have to offer.”

But everything that comes with this new type of fame isn’t ideal. “The first thing that happens when somebody thinks you’re famous is you’re not allowed to be yourself anymore. You’re supposed to be their vision of you,” Powazek says. More difficult, he says, is the fact that “[t]he first rule of fame is that you’re not allowed to admit that you’re famous. And the first rule of fame is that you’re certainly not allowed to complain about being famous — nobody has any tolerance for somebody who’s famous saying, ‘Gosh, my life is so hard now that I’m famous.’”

Voog sees similar problems with fame because of the “preconceived stereotypical ideas that automatically come with it.” She says the “biggest one of all — [and the one] that is the most hurtful — is that when you are famous many people have a hard time seeing you as a real person; you become [an] icon-shaped punching bag for everyone’s insecurities.”

Brett Banfe agrees. “Just the idea of ‘being famous’ is giving other people the power over you. Other people make someone famous. Without media, or an audience, you wouldn’t have fame.”

But fame has a positive side, too, Voog says. “There are also very kind people as well, I have met the most astounding cool people on this planet. They are what keeps me going.” But Banfe identifies another positive side to this new brand of fame. “[I]f I was a 16-year-old looking out for role models, I have more to choose from than bands and movie stars,” he says. “I have people whose lives I can really get to know. “

Those traditional role models – quintessentially famous people like movie stars – helped Powazek realize what fame does. “I had this revelation that people started treating me different once they knew my name before they knew me,” he says. “Just the same way I would say, ‘Jack Nicholson is a nitwit,’ without thinking about Jack Nicholson as a person. He’s Jack Nicholson … he’s not a real person. But he is. There’s this moment where I realized, ‘Jesus Christ, he is.’ All of a sudden, nobody seemed famous to me anymore.”